Treat yourself and rent Philippe Lioret’s award winning film, Welcome, at your local video store. It’s about a seventeen year old Iraqi refugee, Bilal, and his relationship with a French swim coach, Simon. Simon is a heartless bigot whose attitude toward foreigners like Bilal typifies a segment of French culture — distinctly unwelcoming. But in a transparent bid to regain the affections of his social activist wife, (they are divorcing), he agrees to be Bilal’s swim coach. The young refugee ends up prying open Simon’s heart when Simon discovers that the young man has travelled 4000 miles to France, and now plans on swimming the English Channel in order to reunite with the love of his life.
In one of the Palm Sunday readings for this week the psalmist cautions us about this proclivity to reject the stranger: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22).” The gospel writers identified Jesus as the very stone that the social and cultural architects rejected, but who had subsequently become the cornerstone. Bilal plays a Christ figure, rejected by society, yet driven by love alone.
In Australia, the vast majority of the people we have met are socially progressive and are appalled by the attitudes of some in their country toward refugees and asylum seekers. But once you move outside of these circles you do hear people talking nostalgically about growing up in a land that was truly Aussie — that is, white, with British ancestry. The irony is profound given that a great many Australians trace their ancestry back to refugee convicts.
Despite the UNHCR’s (United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees) best efforts, during 2009 nearly 26 million people including 10.4 million refugees were receiving their protection or assistance. At the end of 2009 it is estimated that there were more than 5.7 million refugees trapped in protracted situations and for whom there was limited hope of finding a solution in the near future.
There is a deep and abiding animal instinct in humans to reject and attack those we regard as foreign. Evolutionarily speaking, territoriality is bred in our bones. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal world, (along with bonobos), will attack and kill members of other communities that wander into their territory. They will also send out “stealth border patrols” who will attack and kill members of other communities in order to claim new territory.
One of religion’s roles is to help humans evolve beyond xenophobic and territorial instincts. It’s not that these instincts are bad in and of themselves. They simply are a part of us, and do have a role to play — for example, in the psychological skill of being able to claim our personal boundaries. But what distinguishes us from our animal kin is that we are morally responsible for the stewardship of our impulses.
We have a couple of Big Stories to help us to realize our essential unity with our neighbour, wherever they are from and whatever they happen to believe. First, we could tell the Great Story of creation emphasizing our common origin in the Big Bang as a way of making the point, empirically, that Iraqis, French, Australians, Chinese, and Muslim, Christian and Jews all share a common origin, are made of stardust, and the same genetic material. What unites us is far more primordial than what separates us.
And, as Christians, we can also tell the gospel story to help us evolve our spiritual intelligence. This week’s gospel reading is told every Palm Sunday. It is the story of the rejected one riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is the divine refugee who comes from the Kingdom of the Heart to an unwelcome land, with a Love in his heart that won’t be denied even if it kills him — and it will of course. He comes to soothe the animal fear in us, and release us to embrace a new future grounded in compassion.
I’m tempted to say that he comes to topple the empire of the heartless, to overturn the love of power with the power of love. Except he loves, not only those who line the streets and cheer him on as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, but also those who will reject him. He loves his enemies as himself — which is pretty much the Christian message in a nutshell. He’s not about tearing anything or anybody down. This is the evolution of love, after all, not love’s revenge. He wants to raise us up to our full stature as human beings capable of a love that issues in justice and peace for all, especially the left behinds.
He knows, in the words of Leonard Cohen, that “every heart, every heart to love will come but like a refugee”, and that includes, in the fullness of time, those who hate him and will crucify him. Because not all refugees are political, are they? Those of us who live without love wander the earth as well, in search of a place to call home.
We could do worse than have this refugee Christ as the cornerstone upon which we start to build a new creation. We are the love of his life, after all, and nothing can stop him from getting to us — not even death.
 Anthem, (On the album The Future)
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